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  • Writer's pictureDana Webster

"The Norm"

Updated: May 25, 2021

The topic of this week's post is courtesy of Milana. She asked me to write about, The social push back against nonconformity (i.e., the social effects of deciding to pursue a life path that is considered non-standard or “wrong” by society).

So, this is a great question and one that is close to my heart. Having felt like an outlier for most of my life, I can relate to operating outside "the norm." But before I go on, let me just get this bit out of the way. "The norm." What is it? Who decides it? And how many of us actually fit into it? My take is this (haha ... don't laugh, drawing is not my thing):

The only reliably known quality of "the norm" is that it is a moving target. When I was a girl growing up in the 60s, the norm was to buy into the patriarchy, to get an MRS degree if post-secondary education was even on the menu, get married, have babies, keep house, live happily ever after. I wanted to be a writer but was told that was impractical. I wanted to be a professional softball player but there was no such thing for girls at the time. I studied English Literature at University and everyone asked me if I was going to be a teacher. Um, no. I just wanted four uninterrupted years of book reading. And I still wanted to be a writer.

So, what exactly is "non-standard or 'wrong'?" I believe the answer is predicated upon gender, age, skin colour, sexual identity, religion etc. And remembering that our societal norm mostly refers to Caucasian, English-speaking, middle-class, well-educated males. Yeah, it's a thing. So, for all the women out there, sure, you can go ahead and work your ass off to become a lawyer. In fact more and more women are choosing the law as a career. Correlative to that, though, is more and more women lawyers are ditching their profession because the system is still set up to serve single or even partnered males with no apparent family obligations. So, is choosing to be woman lawyer "non-standard"? Well, until that system learns to meet the needs of women, yes.

Some people thrive within systems. Luckily for them, our lives are constantly lived within one system or another (most often set up to better serve those who administer the system rather than those who are served by it). Take public education as an example (uh oh). Have you noticed that ever since standardized testing became a thing (about 20 years ago), more and more children are being diagnosed with learning and cognitive disabilities, not to mention ADHD? And that the professional tutoring industry has grown exponentially? Wouldn't this suggest that "standard" is not so standard? How were benchmarks determined? Feels to me like they've taken a very narrow view of what is "normal" learning for our children. Square peg, round hole.

I know this for a fact: it takes courage and conviction to live a life that best suits you as an individual. Self-determination can be a lonely road. Without a strong sense of will, the self-doubt can be crippling. Listening to your own voice and following your own values, interests, and gifts, tends to upset established systems and those who take comfort in them.

When my son was born (30 years ago!), the accepted norm for newborns was sleep training ala The Ferber Method (oh my god, it gives me shivers just writing that down. Not even going to supply you with a link). Let baby cry, and cry, and ... cry to the point of vomiting, if need be, until they "learn" to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. I beg your pardon? Or, you could do what we did, what came naturally to us - we brought our baby into bed with us so he could feel the love and close physical contact to the only two people on earth responsible for his survival. Neither of my children needed to be trained to sleep.

In so many ways, I bucked the conventional system of child-rearing and if there's any group of people who fear a rebel, it's new parents. I rarely felt understood or validated in my choices. So much anxiety is caused by shaming new parents into ignoring their child's needs in favour of "the norm".

(Dana steps down off her soapbox)

So, getting back to the original question. Society will always push back against an outlier. Human beings are social and socialized creatures. We rely heavily on belonging. For many of us, our very survival is dependent on others. Shunning, silencing, ostracizing, invalidating, and worse, in an effort to enforce conformity have been a part of human societies for eons. In some very basic ways, on-the-same-page thinking makes sense - working together toward a common goal is central to our survival as a species. But there has to be room for every individual's gifts, challenges, and perspectives.

Interestingly, there seems to be a threshold of acceptance of non-standard life journeys. The gay kid who loves dramatic arts in high school but is ridiculed and bullied for it until they become famous and beloved for their craft. The young woman who recognizes the serious disadvantages of patriarchy and is called a man-hating dyke until she grows up to become a celebrated human rights lawyer. It takes a very strong person to push through and past the norm to realize their full potential and, in these examples at least, to be of benefit to the rest of us.

I have mad respect and gratitude for people who neither fit the norm nor care to. I know what it takes to swim against the tide and to have the strength of one's convictions. It is our non-standard choices that make the world so interesting and compassionate a place to live. Anyone can choose the path of least resistance. Not just anyone can fight to go their own way.


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